Modernity – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 17/?

To follow up on yesterday’s second Mandelstam poem in this series, here is one that is closely related to the first one I posted (found here). Apparently, reading the Iliad late at night, and writing poems about the weird mental state that results, was a common pastime among the Acmeists, and Gumilev had done it four years earlier. However, the two poets’ responses to the same situation are fascinatingly different; Gumilev focuses on the modern world’s contrast with the world of the Iliad, while Mandelstam looks at the Achaeans directly.

(I am aware that it’s mammoths, not mastodons, that lived in Siberia. Please feel free to go to Gumilev’s grave and address your concerns, although I suspect he knew as well, and was just reaching for a rhyme with “horizons” in the original.)


I shut Homer and sat by the bay window glass.
On my lips the last word of the Iliad fluttered.
The night watchman’s long shadow unhurriedly passed,
And above something — lamplight or moonlight — bright sputtered.

So, so often I’d throw down challenging looks
And I met in reply many challenging glances:
Odysseuses over a shipping firm’s books,
Agamemnons amid seedy public-hall bouncers.

Likewise, far in Siberia where blizzards weep,
Mastodons grow more still in their silver glaciers.
Over there their dull yearning makes snowdrifts sweep,
And it’s their blood that reddens horizon frontiers.

I am sad from the book, yearning from the moon’s light.
Perhaps I need no hero, the way it is going.
Here come down the alley, strange in tender delight,
A pair of students embracing, like Daphnis and Chloe.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1911; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

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